Almost half a century has passed since Ray Tomlinson sent the first e‑mail in 1971. A technology for a few nerds has gradually become a mass phenomenon at the latest since the 1990s. Today, the average employee receives or sends more than 100 e‑mails per day(!). So it’s no wonder that many see e‑mail as a burden and even large corporations like Atos have gone so far as to completely ban internal e‑mails and thereby getting more done. There is much to be said for such an approach: constant distraction through e‑mails, an increasingly unfavourable signal-to-noise ratio of the information transmitted, but also the often neglected area of knowledge management. And so the mailboxes become digital mass graves of knowledge.
E‑mail is where knowledge goes to die.
You all know what it’s like. You will find an interesting link and then quickly forward it to your colleagues by e‑mail. Not to everyone, of course, but to a few selected ones. Maybe there will be a little discussion about it and then everyone will file the emails somewhere or delete them. And again a piece of knowledge is buried. The mailboxes are dead ends of the information flow. In these digital silos ideas are dying — only occasionally reanimated by a more or less successful search for the interesting link from the other day.
If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange these apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.
George Bernard Shaw
Don’t get me wrong. Of course it is worthwhile to share knowledge and ideas with colleagues. That’s exactly the point. The problem is e‑mail as a medium. It is simple, fast and is reliably read. Everybody’s just gotten used to it in the last 20 years. But it is essentially a digital letter and made for communication between two people or at most for discussion in a small group. Longer discussions in larger groups quickly become messy and quickly lead to the second great plague of our time and a meeting is set up.
For some time now, there have been more suitable tools in most organizations. Many now have an Enterprise Social Network (ESN) that would enable structured discussions in open groups. There, colleagues could join in who you hadn’t thought of as recipients, but who pick up your idea and connect it to something else. And perhaps at some point the decisive connections will arise from which a really great idea will emerge.
Unfortunately, most ESNs often fall far short of their potential. Many employees are still unaccustomed or untrained to using it, but this can be easily changed, for example, by Working Out Loud. However, culture should not be underestimated. E‑mail is also a protected space (this is exactly the problem) in which it is much easier to speak up. For this purpose, it is absolutely necessary to have leadership and leaders who demonstrate open communication with the ESN. In many cases, however, ESNs are also technically more cumbersome than the good old e‑mail. As long as it is easier to send an email than to quickly share the link on the ESN for everyone, the email will always be preferred and the ideas will continue to rot in the digital mass graves.